FOX Sports Insider
DOHA, Qatar — Before every Argentina game, Lionel Messi gathers his teammates in the center of the locker room. They stand in a tight circle, arms around each other’s shoulders, heads leaning to the middle, and there they wait a moment for Messi to speak.
He’s a quiet man, the captain — private and unflustered — but when he speaks, they all listen. He does so with strong positive vibes, but the message is usually inspirational without being emotional, calm and measured.
The one time it wasn’t? Well, that’s the one they all remember.
To be a fly on the locker room wall for Sunday’s World Cup final between Argentina and France (coverage begins at 9 am ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) at Lusail Stadium would be a rare privilege, but if we’re to guess at how Messi might address his players before the biggest game of their lives, there is a telling precedent, which was handily captured on video.
Never publicly envisioned as a roaring motivator from the “Braveheart” school of pre-game pep talks, Messi amped things up ahead of Argentina’s Copa America final in 2021, a game that would finally give him a major senior title with his national team after 15 years of trying.
“We already know who we are, who Brazil is,” he began. “I won’t say more on the matter. I want to thank you all for these past 45 days, boys. I said it on the day of my birthday (16 days earlier), this is a spectacular group, a beautiful group. ”
It was not until November of this year that the footage was revealed, as part of the Netflix documentary, “Sean Eternos: Campeones de America,” which focused on that campaign. It was enlightening.
Because there was Messi, the brilliant individualist, the man who at the 2014 World Cup was captain in name only as Javier Mascherano martialed the troops, suddenly transformed into a warrior leader as his colleagues stood transfixed.
“It’s been 45 days of hard work in which we haven’t complained about the traveling, the food, the hotels, the pitches, nothing,” he continued. “Forty-five days without seeing our families. Forty-five days. El Dibu (goalkeeper Emi Martínez) became a father and didn’t even get to see his new child, and why? Because of this moment, boys.”
There was more, and we will get to it. But it said a lot about Messi, whose private nature has often led to misunderstanding. Consider this, Argentina has had two of the all-time soccer greats over the past 50 years. That, in itself, is remarkable, yet it was only natural Messi would be compared to Diego Maradona, who died in 2020, and the comparisons were unfair.
Maradona was a natural showman who loved the noise and the spotlight whether it was on the field or off, a man who lived large and played even bigger. Messi has always felt more comfortable showing his full flair during matches, but keeping things decidedly low-key at other times.
Often, the burden of trying to bring international success to his country was stifling. By the time of the Copa America final, in Brazil and against Brazil, he was finally ready to shed those years of disappointment.
“We had an objective, and we’re one step away from achieving it, and the best thing about it is it’s in our hands,” he said, his voice rising as the group hung on every word. “So, we’re going to go out there and lift the trophy, we’re going to take it home to Argentina and enjoy it with our family, friends with everyone that has always supported Argentina.”
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At this tournament, Argentina’s start could not have been worse, with a defeat to Saudi Arabia in the opening game in what was one of the World Cup’s all-time greatest shocks. It didn’t matter in the end. In fact, it might have been a necessary wake-up call.
They bounced back to beat Mexico and Poland, got past Australia, held off the Netherlands on penalties and were too much for Croatia in the semis.
And here it is, the biggest challenge of them all against the reigning champion in the final, with Messi afforded the chance to climb a couple of rungs in soccer’s eternal pantheon by adding the only trophy to elude him.
He has looked ready, and you can bet he’ll be ready, at 35 and in his final World Cup match, to ball out. To prevail, he’ll need his teammates to do the same, which is why you can bet he’ll be looking for something to motivate them, some indicator that fate is shining on them.
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At the Copa America, he used the fact that the tournament had originally been scheduled for Argentina, before being moved to Brazil due to the global pandemic, as proof that it was meant to be.
Who knows what snippet of impetus he’ll call upon this time? But as one of soccer history’s greatest creative minds, it shouldn’t be too hard to find an up-to-date version to get his players roaring with supportive anticipation. Just like they did in 2021, when he said…
“I want to finish with this. Coincidences don’t exist. This tournament had to be played in Argentina and do you know why? Because God brought it here. So, we win here in the Maracana (Stadium) for all of us. So let’s go out there with confidence, with cool heads, and let’s win this trophy. Come on, boys!”
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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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